Renegotiating the 'Submit Button' Contract

  |  June 23, 2010   |  Comments

Marketers must understand the unique privacy concerns of their audiences and experiment transparently with new ways to engage them.

She looked at me across the table. I couldn't look back.

"Tell me," she implored. "What's wrong?"

I looked at her, the neon beer sign reflected in my glistening eyes. Then, she knew.

"No," she whispered. "You didn't."

"Yes," I admitted, casting my eyes back down at my drink. "I appended my house file."

The Submit Button Contract

"Appending" seemed like such a big issue several years ago. It seems that we have bigger issues to deal with now. Today, marketers must consider if behavioral targeting is appropriate for their brands and audiences.

There was a time when we marketers sought the high ground with vigor; defending unbreakable "submit button" contracts, the implied or explicit agreement made when someone completed a form and hit "submit."

Much of what we considered high ground is now beginning to feel like a swamp of naïveté.

It seems that prospects don't want to be so protected. Social networks are getting away with what we would've considered privacy murder, but seem to have the implied - if not tacit - approval of consumers.

High Road or Naïveté?

It wasn't long ago that I was a corporate marketer sitting on a house list with few e-mail addresses. I needed e-mail to make some things happen. This is when the concept of appending was introduced to me.

Appending sounded so easy. You send your database out to a firm that runs it through its database and adds the e-mail address to the names in your list. You can also have other contact information updated.

Appending, I soon learned, was not considered morally appropriate for marketers, especially in the B2B (define) world. The problems were thorny:

  1. Prospects had given me the information they wanted me to have and hadn't approved contact by other means. Appending broke this contract.

  2. Sending my prospects' contact information to a third party was certainly a violation of privacy policies, both written and implied.

  3. The appending process was imperfect. Many e-mail addresses would be erroneously appended to prospects in my list. I would have been sending e-mail to people who had never interacted with my company; the very definition of a spammer.

Nonetheless, appending is very tempting when sales are down, or when a new marketer wants to make a splash with the boss.

Governing Authorities

There were some "cops" who sought to help us stay on high ground as marketers. E-mail service providers (ESPs) wouldn't send e-mail to appended lists. ISPs watched for complaints and would shut down anyone who got too many complaints.

Of course, there were the more Machiavellian marketers who saw it as their job to bring anyone and everyone to choice about their product. In a sense, they were right. Like a Wall Street stock broker with 10 people ready to take their desk, they were incentivized to do anything they could to get sales.

"Information From Other Sources"

Today, mixing and matching data is common and largely accepted. Behavioral targeting firms mix and match data assuring the public that it's being done anonymously.

The unbreakable contract has been replaced by the malleable privacy policy, which can be "changed at any time without notice."

Things came full circle for me this week. One of the ESPs that I use, MailChimp, sent me an e-mail entitled "Updated Privacy Policy and Terms of Use." It seems that the companies that were once the "cops" have started to use techniques like appending in their own marketing.

The tell-tale line is this one:

We've updated our privacy policy to tell you that we use social media, social networks, and the social graph (always responsibly) to learn more about you (not your list, and not your customers).

MailChimp is appending social network accounts to its customer list.

I feel naïve.

An example used in the e-mail says that, if I complain about MailChimp to my social network, the company will see that complaint and correlate my Facebook or Twitter account to my customer record to "analyze the problem, and get back to [me] with a solution."

Most consumers would say that sounds like a good idea. I'll let you know if they respond to my tweet about this column.

Transparency Is the New Privacy Policy

Since privacy policies don't have teeth, how are we to enforce our submit button contracts with the companies that we entrust our information?

Transparency is our last bastion of protection. Knowing about changes allows us to make the ultimate decision: to close our accounts. The MailChimp privacy policy spells it out:

Therefore, if you object to changes in our Privacy Policy which relate to those purposes, we will have to terminate your account.

The MailChimp change was unilateral. Our only recourse as customers is to close our account. New MailChimp customers will only see:

F. Information From Other Sources. We may obtain additional information about you by using your email address, or other information, to directly, or through one or more services, search over the internet, or elsewhere. We thereby obtain information that appears to be related to such email address or other information, such as a name, age and participation in social media websites, (such information being referred to herein as "Supplemental Member Information").

The MailChimp e-mail was a lesson in transparency, however.

  1. The MailChimp e-mail was apparently sent to all existing customers.
  2. It was written in human English, as opposed to lawyerese.
  3. The e-mail was written in an engaging way, to encourage recipients to read it.
  4. It spelled out what would change, and made the business case for the changes.
  5. There was a special e-mail address provided so recipients could provide feedback on the changes.

Add Value in Exchange for Privacy Concessions

As a culture, we are remarkably comfortable relaxing our privacy concerns to participate in social networks. These networks are incredibly valuable to us.

Social networks are somewhat effective at policing themselves. Facebook has repeatedly been beaten back from big changes in its privacy policies by community outcry, but not beaten all the way back.

Social networks make us all conspirators in this new permission ecosystem. A simple widget allows me to adorn my blog with the faces of my Facebook page fans. I use their implied endorsement of my business without compensation.

But, just as MailChimp offers improved customer support in return for our loss of privacy, I assume that the valuable content I provide rewards my fans for my use of their smiling endorsements.

The primary argument in favor of behavioral targeting is that surfers will only see relevant ads. This is a value-add in exchange for what many see as a loss of privacy.

Renegotiate Transparently

Every audience is different. We, as marketers, must understand the unique privacy concerns of our audience, and this means experimenting transparently with new ways to engage them, and then listening.

Regulated industries and industries that manage explicitly private information, such as healthcare data, should tread lightly. The rest of us, it seems, should start finding ways to add value in return for the right to append data and contact consumers outside of the submit button contract.

Take a look at MailChimp's privacy policy.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Massey

With 15 years of online marketing experience, Brian has designed the digital strategy and marketing infrastructure for a number of businesses, including his own technology consulting company, Conversion Sciences. He built his company to transform the Internet from a giant digital-brochure stand to a place where people find the answers they seek. His clients use online strategies to engage their visitors and grow their businesses. Brian has created a series of Web strategy workshops and authors the Conversion Scientist blog. Brian works from Austin, Texas, a place where life and the Internet are hopelessly intertwined.

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